How Rafael Nadal can defy all odds to beat Alexander Zverev in blockbuster French Open 2024 tie | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

How Rafael Nadal can defy all odds to beat Alexander Zverev in blockbuster French Open 2024 tie

ByAratrick Mondal
May 27, 2024 10:57 AM IST

Does Rafael Nadal stand a chance to beat in-form Alexander Zverev Zverev on Monday in French Open round one tie?

In January 2022, when Rafael Nadal, who was in crutches even a few months and was contemplating retirement, returned to action for the Australian Open amid Novak Djokovic's Covid-vaccination fiasco, few gave him a chance to make the second week in Melbourne, let alone reach the final. But the Spaniard, who kept reiterating the pain and struggles of his foot injury after each of his wins, defied logic to script a thunderous run to the final. Yet, he still wasn't quite the overwhelming favourite against Daniil Medvedev, who quickly established a two-set-to-love lead, leaving an inevitable loss waiting for Nadal. As he served to stay in the third set, where he was trailing as well, the win predictor showed a four per cent probability of Nadal pulling off a comeback. The script seemed ready even as the enthusiastic Rod Laver Arena, collectively rallied behind Nadal tirelessly throughout, and the legend responded to the Russian saying 'Not today'. Eventually, what Melbourne witnessed on that glorious evening was a sheer miracle.

Spain's Rafael Nadal during a practice session (REUTERS)
Spain's Rafael Nadal during a practice session (REUTERS)

Comebacks of this magnitude have defined Nadal's illustrious career. Not just from a situational point of view, which earned him the tag of 'Relentless Rafa', but also in terms of his gameplay, given that he never was the biggest hitter or most aggressive player on tour. Yet Nadal, with his iconic forehand and a second-to-none defence, found a way to not just dominate against his contemporaries over the last two decades but also win 22 Grand Slams.

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ALSO READ: Nadal vs Zverev, French Open 2024: Streaming details, H2H tie - Everything about Rafa's Round 1 match at Roland Garros

On Monday, Nadal will need to cast another spell of magic on the most cherished venues in his career, when he takes on world No. 4 Alexander Zverev on Court Philippe-Chatrier in round one of the 2024 French Open tournament. Ideally, the 37-year-old would stand favourite against the German, having beaten him seven times in their 10 meetings on tour, including two in Grand Slams, where their last encounter ended in a heartbreaking moment for Zverev as he was forced to retire from the 2022 Roland Garros semis after an ankle twist during the second set tie-break. Considering Nadal's mind-bending 112-3 record on Parisian clay, he should be the outright favourite in the draw. And ideally, Nadal would never have drawn Zverev in the first round of the French Open.

But his body has seldom been kind towards him. In the last two seasons, he dodged two hip injuries - one saw him miss the entire 2023 calendar year, while the other saw him skipping the 2024 hardcourt swing - thus leaving him as an unseeded player at the Roland Garros this year. Moreover, Nadal has looked only a pale shadow of himself in his eight matches on clay this year. He suffered round-two exits in both Barcelona and Rome, but managed to script an important run to the pre-quarters in Madrid, which remained the only event that showed rare glimpses of his past magic. But the one fact evident from the 5-3 run on clay in 2024 was age, and injuries have slowed him down. And hence, it leads to the glaring question of whether he stands a chance against Zverev on Monday.

Zverev heads into the tournament on the back of a title-winning run in the Italian Open, where he put on a service masterclass in the final. He lost just five points behind his serve in the match against Nicolas Jarry, winning 37/39 on first serve and 7/10 behind second.

Not to forget, he double-faulted just once and dished out six aces in 11 service games. But the most stellar aspect of Zverev's performance was his ability to mix serve locations to keep Jarry guessing. In fact, in the last one year, he has been one of the best servers on tour, landing the most first serves than any other top-50 player and he stands third in the list of most serves held.

For Nadal, who has been known for his immaculate return game, especially on clay, his defence has fallen significantly in the last eight matches. While he owned a stupendous record of 48 per cent return points won and breaking serve 47 per cent of times during his 2018 clay-court run, it has nosedived to 40 and 30, respectively.

In that loss against Hubert Hurkacz in Rome earlier this month, while Nadal looked more positive than ever with his approach, he struggled not just to break serve but also lacked speed behind both his first and second serve.

For Nadal to stand a chance, he not only needs to adjust his return position against Zverev, in a bid to travel less on the points, he needs to find a way to counter those big first serves with deep returns. The other factor will be controlling the rally length. In his 14 Major wins in Paris, Nadal's dominance has been dictated through mid-length rallies (5-8), but on Monday, he would need to lessen the shots in play in a bid to reduce more pressure on his body. He needs to begin controlling the point from shot one because if he can’t wrestle control of the first four shots, it will be advantage Zverev.

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